So I have always said that I want things to go badly in my lessons so that I can get help dealing with the stuff that goes wrong, but every once in a while isn't it awesome to have a lesson where everything goes right?
I have been taking lessons with Amy Howard lately, about once a month, and she has helped us tremendously. She really likes Tucker, and says the nicest things about his gaits and his attitude. So much so that it actually makes me feel silly if I am too self-deprecating. Admittedly, the first time we arrived at her barn, surrounded by glossy, beautiful, "real" dressage horses, and then me, a wannabe dressage rider and Tucker, who stood on the cross-ties like a giraffe, I was feeling a bit insecure. But Amy's positive attitude and friendly demeanor put that all to rest immediately. She makes me feel prouder of my horse than I've ever been.
So last night things went well. Really well, actually. We warmed up on a loose rein and right away Tucker picked up a big, swingy trot, and when I pushed him forward his trot got bigger, not faster (!). He is really learning to stretch down and round to the left as well as he does to the right, which is huge. I was watching him in the mirror thinking "is this my horse?" Amy said it was a lovely trot and commented on how well he was tracking up, and said he looked great (and I tried to force the huge goofy grin off my face).
Then we went to an exercise Amy taught us last lesson (which was our "homework" last time), creating some adjustability in the trot. I've dubbed this the "Number Game," because Amy described it as taking the trot down to a "2," which is a very, very small trot, and then back to a "4," and then a "6," which is our regular working trot, and then an "8," then a "5," etc., up and down until he moves fluidly between the different trots. It really helps Tucker loosen up and start giving and using his back a little more. To the right he executes this brilliantly. To the left, he cheats a little by swinging his hips to the outside.
So we went to our haunches-in left. We had a real light bulb moment here and I think this led to the excellent work we had for the rest of the lesson. She said he needed more curve through his body in this movement, so that his sternum was pointed straight ahead and his haunches came in, rather than having his nose to the rail so much. This is WAY harder but explains why my haunches-in hasn't really been helping the hips-swinging-to-the-outside problem. Basically, I need more left leg at the girth, and then his wither has to stay between my hands, hands have to stay on either side of the neck, and haunches have to swing in from my outside leg and seat.
From here we went up to our left lead canter, and worked on the canter depart as well as my sitting the canter, which as I've mentioned, is something I'm struggling with. As for the canter departs, really all I need is to compress the trot a bit to set it up (half-halts) and then inside leg at the girth, and finally cue with the outside leg a little back. I've been working on not pitching my torso forward and dropping the contact during the transition, but I have been missing the inside leg.
Amy explained the importance of the inside leg to me and it actually makes perfect sense. Without the inside leg cue, the hind legs go wide before the transition, and then you get a few shuffle steps because the horse has to set himself back up for the canter. (This is exactly what I've seen happen in the mirror and felt with Tucker, I just didn't know why). With the inside leg, you tell the inside hind foot to step under more, and then cue with your outside leg to have the horse's outside hind foot strike off for the first beat of the canter stride. This was a huge revelation for me. Once I set the transition up this way, our canter departs were much better. (Could probably still use more "jump," but all in good time).
As for my position, she had me get lighter in my stirrups, bend my knees more, and then find my seat bones and keep them in contact with the saddle. It seems my seat problem is actually a leg problem. I understand, technically, that dressage riders should have a leg that drapes around the horse. I just never really understood how to make my body do anything approaching that. I kind of got it last night. I need to do some no-stirrups work, I think, even if it's just at the walk. Anyway, once I thought about not pushing into my stirrups and bending my knee, it was easier to sink down into the saddle, and then follow with my lower back. And Tucker got rounder and softer. Then Amy told me to resist a little with my lower back to collect the canter, and I got a downward transition in response. Not exactly what I wanted, but it shows he was listening and tried to do what I asked. So we'll work on that.
After the canter work we finished up with the leg yields, the way they are set up in First-1, where you turn from A and leg yield to the rail. I told her when I turn left to do the left-to-right leg yield, he swings his haunches right and then he's bent the wrong way and the leg yield doesn't work out. Well, not last night. He executed four flawless leg yields in both directions, and Amy said, and I quote, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I can't believe how much better these have gotten!" (Cue goofy grin.) I have been working without a mirror for the past month, and although the leg yields have felt better for the past couple weeks, I didn't realize just how much better they had gotten. I had to remind myself to keep riding because I was staring in the mirror in disbelief. He was reaching with his outside leading shoulder, crossing over and stepping under, and taking my outside rein. Go Tucker!
After a big stretchy trot in each direction we quit on that note. Our homework for the next few weeks is to be ready to run through First-1 next time. I have been working on the individual pieces of it but I haven't put it all together yet. I love that she gives me something to work on between each lesson. And the best part of all: She said we got an "A+" for the day.
Needless to say, I drove the trailer home with the radio cranked and seat-danced all the way back to my barn. It was one of those moments where I just felt overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to call this horse mine. So happy!